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The Ten Thousand Things Paperback – July 31, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
First published in 1955, Dutch author Maria Dermot's loosely autobiographical The Ten Thousand Things, trans. by Hans Koning, is now back in print in English. Felicia, who grew up with her Dutch grandmother on an Indonesian island, returns there from Holland with her young son, Himpies, after being robbed and abandoned by her husband. Known by the locals as the "young lady of the Small Garden," she settles easily (despite her superstitious and imperious grandmother) back into the customs and rhythms of the island, eventually accruing enough wealth to live very comfortably. Tragedy strikes when Himpies, who has grown and joined the army, is killed. A new set of characters is then introduced, throwing the narrative off somewhat, but the focus returns to Felicia at the end, as she tries to make sense of the deaths that have shaped her own life. Dermot beautifully depicts the idyllic setting and handles the darker aspects of the story-ghosts, superstition, even murder-with equal skill.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
“Fans of magic realism will be thrilled to discover a long out-of-print Dutch classic...Dermout writes exquisitely and hauntingly of murder and loss, tolerance, and fear of “the other.” --Library Journal
"Dermoût beautifully depicts the idyllic setting and handles the darker aspects of the story—ghosts, superstition, even murder—with equal skill." --Publishers Weekly
"An offbeat narrative that has the timeless tone of legend." –Time
"Mrs. Dermout, in the manner of Thoreau and the early Hemingway, is an extraordinary sensualist. But her approach is not the muzzy, semi-poetic one in which the writer damagingly affixes his own imagination to what he sees. Instead, her instinct for beauty results, again and again, in passages of a startling, unadorned, three-dimensional clarity; often one can almost touch what she describes." –Whitney Balliett, The New Yorker
"Beautiful and eerie" -–The Atlantic
"I might add that the books we return to are informed by potencies—those objects that illumine the text and our own memories. I am thinking of Maria Dermout’s magical The Ten Thousand Things." –Rikki Ducornet, novelist
"This [The Ten Thousand Things] is a beautiful book. What’s curious, you get the tone that makes you recognize that Michael Ondaatje is part of a culture, not simply a singular writer; he's part of a whole way of seeing reality." –Robert Creeley
"A son murdered by the head-hunters of Ceram. Three ghost-sisters playing on an empty beach. The curiosity cabinet and its contents. As the story circles on itself, they number in the thousands, so that anything once loved is eternal, beautiful, unchanged." –Linda Spalding, in Lost Classics
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In my reading over the past decade, I have really come to trust the reissues of the New York Review of Books -- works of fiction, predominantly foreign, that have undeservedly slipped out of circulation. They do for older literature what the Europa Press does for contemporary: open the reader's eyes to a wide range of geographical locations, subjects, and narrative approaches. There are many hits but few misses, and even the oddball books that are hard to classify are fascinating in their oddness.
So it is with this unique novel by Dutch author Maria Dermoût, first published in 1958. How to describe it: a ghost story, a generation-spanning romance, a tropical idyll? It begins as a novel, then dissolves all the conventions in a series of apparently unconnected stories, only to pull it all together in a final chapter resonant with the echoes of old losses and present joy. But let's start with the beginning: "On the island in the Moluccas there were a few gardens left from the great days of spice growing...". On one of these, on the Inner Bay, lives a widow, an old Dutch settler, known as "The Lady of the Small Garden." She has a grand-daughter, Felicia, who grows up among the plants, shells, and animal life of the bay, an idyllic childhood full of discovery and imagination. Full, too, of the imagination of others: the beliefs of the island people, the visits of the old Bibi selling objects with special powers, the collections in her grandmother's curiosity cabinet, and the ghosts of three little girls in pink who died long ago on the same day.
The book's presiding spirit is the 17th-century German Dutch botanist Georg Eberhard Rumphius, who first classified the plants of the Indonesian archipelago, but also published a book of curiosities which is as speculative as his herbiary was scientific. Dermoût also shifts from objective description to inner imagination, often within a single sentence. Fact and fancy intermingle in this book, time is dissolved, the Lady of the Small Garden even morphs from grandmother to granddaughter in the book's opening section, and nobody even notices.
For Felicia, after completing her education in Europe and marrying a man who soon deserts her, comes back to the Island with her infant son Himpies. She lives in the Small Garden and grows old in her turn. Decades slip by in an eyeblink. Major happenings pass in moments; minor ones seem suspended in time. World events hardly seem to touch this outpost; it is hard even to put a date on the action, though it probably begins in the later 19th century. But Felicia is no hermit; even as an old woman, she welcomes the guests who sail their proas to her dock. One day each year, however, she keeps strictly for herself, as a vigil for all those who have been murdered on the island....
Accustomed as I now was to the unpredictable aspects of this book, I was taken by surprise when, about half-way through, Dermoût suddenly takes leave of Felicia and embarks upon three stories which seem to have no connection with each other. There is the retired Commissioner at the Outer Bay, holed up in an old house with four women and a collection of gold and pearls. There is the cook Constance, with her parade of admirers and her fondness for dancing at the rattan tug-of-war. There is the Javanese prince who takes work as a clerk to a Scottish professor, revisiting Rumphius' work on the flora and fauna of the islands. Only at the very end, when we return to Felicia's annual vigil, do we see the connections between the stories, not merely in the deaths they contain, but also in the cycle of life, a vision of wholeness that embraces shells and pearls, a fleet of jellyfish and a tame cockatoo, memories of children and young men killed in their prime, and extending even to the murderers themselves.
The characters were a diverse mix of beliefs. cultures and backgrounds. The story often highlights how different their thought processes were. Some were a bit difficult to understand and hard to empathize with. This book seemed to be written by the island, with its rich and very different culture that transcended time and the generations of people who lived there. The beliefs were interesting, mysterious and quite foreign to me .
Overall, worth the read.